The Value and Limits of Imagination

On a 4-day Field & Field course I recently attended on The Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses, Iain McGilchrist told us that there are four paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He gave a one-hour talk on each of these topics. In these posts I am sharing the notes I made whilst listening to the talks. For previous posts see:

And for further posts on Iain McGilchrist’s work, see

The Value and Limits of Imagination (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation. Any errors are mine)

Iain started by telling us that imagination is a bit suspect these days.

‘Inspiration is something we cannot control, towards which we have to exhibit what Wordsworth called a ‘wise passiveness’. As the nineteenth century wore on, this lack of control fitted ill with the confident spirit engendered by the Industrial Revolution, and this lack of predictability with the need, in accord with the Protestant ethic, for ‘results’ as the reward for effort. Imagination was something that could not be relied on: it was transitory, fading from the moment it revealed itself to consciousness (in Shelley’s famous phrase, ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’), recalcitrant to the will. In response to this, ‘the Imaginative’, a product of active fantasy, rather than of the receptive imagination, began to encroach on the realm of imagination itself….’ (p.381 The Master and His Emissary)

The Reformation of the sixteenth century could be seen as having involved a shift away from the capacity to understand metaphor, incarnation, the realm that bridges this world and the next, matter and spirit, towards a literalistic way of thinking – a move away from imagination, now seen as treacherous, and towards rationalism. (p.382 The Master and His Emissary)

But imagination is not something that leads us astray; it is our only hope of leading us to reality and not only for great artists. It is for each of us in our everyday experience. We should go to meet it. If we don’t we are closed in a hermetic cell. We need imagination to get out of this.

In talking about imagination, Iain referred to Schelling (1854-1775) and Coleridge (1772-1834), saying that Schelling was a very profound philosopher and that Coleridge helped to make his ideas more comprehensible. Beyond this, Iain said little about Schelling. I know nothing of Schelling and it appears from a brief internet search that he is a philosopher who would take some getting to know, but as far as I can fathom, Schelling’s main thesis was an opposition to mechanism, materialism and scientific theorising and a view that nothing in nature is completely lifeless. ‘Nature is mind in the process of becoming conscious. Mind (or the self), on the other hand, is something which in its cognitive, rational activity, creates nature.’ (Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin. P.555). Further brief reading around this topic suggests that understanding this relationship between mind and matter requires a leap of imagination.

Coleridge drew on Schelling’s ideas to develop his theory of imagination. Coleridge distinguished between fantasy and imagination. Fantasy is about escaping reality. It recombines things that are already known to us. But imagination is bound up with reality. It looks at what is and sees it for the first time. Imagination is a process where we never quite arrive, a process where we go to meet things, where the progress towards reality is one of ascending a spiral and seeing the whole.
















William Blake’s painting of Jacob’s ladder

When ascending the spiral, reaching a higher plane also involves a ‘coming back’ and being able to see and maintain contact with what is below.

Coleridge thought human imagination had two distinct parts, the primary and the secondary. Primary imagination is, he thought, the spontaneous act of creation that is not at our beckoning or under our control. There may have been years of mental work prior to this. Secondary imagination is the conscious act of bringing a composition into being from primary imagination. In other words, as Shelley said, inspiration is already dying when composition starts, hence ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’. Poetry, music and composition come through us.


Iain then went on to talk about creativity, telling us that the right hemisphere of the brain is much more creative than the left hemisphere, although both hemispheres are involved in creativity. We can’t make the creative act happen. To encourage it, don’t do things.

Iain then discussed three stages of the creative process:

  • Preparation, a long process involving hard work, skills and knowledge, both conscious and unconscious
  • Incubation, an unconscious stage which is not under voluntary control and can only be impeded by conscious effort
  • Illumination, when a flash of insight flowers out of unconsciousness

In looking for this model of creativity I found it can be attributed to Graham Wallas. Maria Popova has written a useful post about this on her brainpickings site.

Iain also told us that for creativity there must be generative, permissive and translation requirements. The generative phase brings together things that normally can’t be brought together. In the permissiveness phase we have to get out of the way so that this can work for us; there is a relaxation of self-imposed constraints. Creation is always also self-creation. We make things and ourselves. The self and the Other create one another.

“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the translation phase, the analytic mind plays a part, but it needs intuition to discover things. Criticism mustn’t happen too early. The subliminal self is superior to the conscious self. It’s interesting to consider the extent to which scientists actually use the scientific method, and how much they rely on the subliminal self, imagination and intuition.

Does the right hemisphere play a part in creativity?

Evidence of the right hemisphere’s special role in creativity comes from studying the work of renowned artists, composers and poets, before and after having a stroke. See, for example, a paper written by H. Bäzner and M.G. Hennerici – Painting after Right-Hemisphere Stroke – Case Studies of Professional Artists. In this Bäzner and Hennerici discuss the work of Otto Dix, whose paintings became flatter and more schematic following a right hemisphere stroke.












This move towards static, flatter and more narrowly focussed images can also be seen in film makers following a right hemisphere stroke.

A left hemisphere stroke has the opposite effect. For example, Benjamin Britten is thought to have done his best work after a left hemisphere stroke; Stravinsky composed more after a left hemisphere stroke; Handel wrote his Messiah in just three weeks shortly after his left hemisphere stroke, and William Carlos Williams’ poetry output became prolific after his left hemisphere stroke.

Damage to the left hemisphere, or just suppressing the left hemisphere, can lead to improvement in all kinds of creativity, e.g. the 9-dot problem can be solved much quicker following a left hemisphere stroke.

The challenge is to draw four straight lines which go through the middle of all of the dots without taking the pencil off the paper


The Relationship between creativity and mental illness

Aristotle linked melancholy to creativity, and research has linked depression and alcoholism to creativity. Rates of creativity are abnormally high in people with mental illness or mood disorders. Studies on male and female poets have shown higher rates of mental disorders, and in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, American psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison examined the relationship between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. Comedians tend to suffer from depression. But no-one is very creative while they are ill. When they are well, the fact of having been ill makes them creative, but stress and anxiety promote the left hemisphere’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, as Iain told us at the beginning of his talk there seems to be a resistance against the notion of imagination. In briefly following this suggestion up, I found that in her paper The Odd Position of the Melancholic – The Loss of an Explanatory Model? Dr. Helena De Preester has written (p.18) that this resistance also applies to notions of melancholy and inspiration.

‘ …. the notion of melancholy is pushed to the side of a very subjective and personal discourse, and seems to have lost its all-pervading cultural and historical meaning, which was very helpful in directing discussions about (artistic) creativity, inspiration and imagination.’

‘ … the term ‘imagination’ is not very popular anymore: young artists or students in the arts often prefer to say that it all comes down to working very hard and to having the accidental (and economic) luck of becoming famous.’ …

‘creativity’ is an effect of working very hard, but it does not figure in a broader discourse on inspiration. The notions of ‘imagination’, ‘creativity’, ‘melancholy’ and ‘inspiration’ thus seem to have become vague and private notions, which rather block than deepen a discussion on the specificity of artistic creation and the position of the artist.

But Iain suggested that to be creative we need to open ourselves up to unconscious influences. This critical phase must be out of our control. We have to avoid interruptions and stress for creativity. Play and being relaxed are important. Consciousness is a stage with a spotlight. We need to get out of the glare of consciousness, out of the spotlight for creativity to flourish.

Exploring the Divided Brain – Creativity, paradox and negation

22nd August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 4 (am)

This is the seventh in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

Day 3 (am). Where can we go for truth?

Day 3 (pm). Trying to be sane in an insane world


Negative capability (Creativity and the role that paradox and negation inevitably play in it)

We discussed the power of ‘No’ on last year’s course and looking back at my notes I can see that I found it difficult to write a coherent post. Looking at this year’s notes I can see that I am going to have the same problem. I am going to try and resolve this problem by saying ‘No’ to a lot of the detail of what Iain said and just stick with the key messages. Hopefully we will be able to refer to his forthcoming books for the detail.

Iain started this session by reminding us of the inhibitory effects of the hemispheres. If one hemisphere is damaged it promotes something in the other. In particular the frontal lobes achieve what they achieve through inhibition (p.91-92, The Master and his Emissary). The brain is a hugely complicated feedback system. ‘It’s not that we have free will, but that we have free won’t’. Saying ‘No’ may be the origin of what comes into being. Saying ‘No’ comes before saying ‘Yes’. Negation is a creative act. Division is part of creation. All is one and all is not one and out of this conjunction comes everything.

As in last year’s course, Iain referenced the Kabbalah to discuss the role of negation and division in creation. In the Kabbalah creation myth there are three phases.

  1. The first creative act is withdrawal, to make a space in which there can be anything, i.e. to attend to the right hemisphere.
  2. The second phase is the shattering of the vessels. Ten vessels of light created in the first phase cannot contain the force of life within them and shatter. This relates to the unpacking, unfolding and fragmenting role of the left hemisphere.
  3. The third phase is repair, when the pieces are gathered and things come into being, which relates to reconstitution by the right hemisphere.

This myth serves to illustrate how something comes from nothing and how ‘no’ thing is not the complete absence of anything; it has a positive force.

The act of creation is to remove what is obscuring the life force, to clear things away, to uncover, to ‘dis’ cover, to find ‘something that was there, but required liberation into being’ (p.230, The Master and his Emissary), just as a sculptor allows a statue to come into being by clearing away the stone.


Source of image. Michelangelo – unfinished sculpture.

Negation is often an opening up. Even the most negative thing in life can have a positive effect. Iain only mentioned his personal experience of depression in passing in this year’s course, but this short video covers his thoughts about the pursuit of happiness and the potential positive effects of negative experience.

Not doing things is important, just as not saying things is important. Speech is silver, but silence is golden. We lose ourselves to find ourselves. The more we know the less we know, but not knowing can be more fruitful than knowing, although not knowing is not the same as ignorance.

We need both precision and vagueness, restriction and openness. Sometimes restriction is freedom. Boundaries are important in life. They should be robust but not completely impermeable, not too close but not too far. Everything in life is better with boundaries. The best things that exist are always on/off. We need both asymmetry and symmetry. We need both hemispheres, but we only see through particular frameworks and we don’t find what we were not expecting to see.

It is very hard to become aware of what you are not aware. We draw on the natural world as a model but we increasingly see the natural world from the left hemisphere’s perspective. All models are wrong, but some are more wrong than others.

Personal reflection

I have been reflecting on what saying ‘No’ means to me. If I lived in the city it could mean saying ‘No’ to the bright lights and moving to the country, but I am fortunate that I live in beautiful South Lakeland (Cumbria, UK) and am surrounded by nature in all its glory. Alternatively even living here it could mean disconnecting from all things technological (and more) as Susan Maushart did when she became concerned at how much of her children’s lives were governed by technological devices. Lots of these sorts of experiments are reported in the press, but very few are life-long changes.

For me saying ‘No’ is much more about clearing a space to allow for emergent learning, whatever that might be.

Recently I attended a course at Lancaster University about the materiality of nothing. I now realise how closely related Iain McGilchrist’s ideas are to the ideas discussed at the Lancaster seminar, but its interesting that conceptual art was used to illustrate the materiality of nothing. (See for example the post I wrote at that time – Letting go of control to create something our of nothing ).

What has been wonderful about this course is how I have been able to make many connections with my research and wider work, connections that are not immediately obvious, but are becoming more apparent as I learn more about Iain McGilchrist’s ideas.

Authors/people referred to during the session

B. Alan Wallace (2004). The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (2013). The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation.

Jakob Böhme. Notable ideas: The mystical being of the deity as the Ungrund (“unground”) or the ground without a ground.

Lewis Carroll (1872). Through the Looking Glass

John Kay (2010). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. Profile Books

Susan Maushart (2010) The Winter of our Disconnect: How one family pulled the plug and lived to tell/text/tweet the tale 

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Philip McCosker. Cambridge Theologian

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2013). Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.

Brad Warner (2013). There is no God and he is always with you. New World Library

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) Tintern Abbey